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Dhak

The Dhak is a huge membranophone and a very old percussion instrument.  A large hollow wooden barrel is covered on both ends with hide. The spherical ends are about 18 inches  in diameter, the left of which is covered with a thicker hide than the right. The thicker end is played with a pair of bamboo sticks. On certain occasions, it is played with just the hands. The big instrument is slung over the shoulder, suspended from the neck, placed on the ground or lap when it is played. It has a special significance for Bengalis as it symbolizes Durga Puja which would be incomplete without the heady, frenzied beats of the Dhak. The instrument is often embellished with white or multi-colored feathers or with the more traditional white flowers of the Kash grass – ‘Kashphool’, especially on festive occasions.




The Dhak is a huge membranophone and a very old percussion instrument.  A large hollow wooden barrel is covered on both ends with hide. The spherical ends are about 18 inches in diameter, the left of which is covered with a thicker hide than the right. The thicker end is played with a pair of bamboo sticks. On certain occasions, it is played with just the hands. The big instrument is slung over the shoulder, suspended from the neck, placed on the ground or lap when it is played. It has a special significance for Bengalis as it symbolizes Durga Puja which would be incomplete without the heady, frenzied beats of the Dhak. The instrument is often embellished with white or multi-colored feathers or with the more traditional white flowers of the Kash grass – ‘Kashphool’, especially on festive occasions.

The dhak is usually made from the trunk of a mango tree. The trunk is immersed in water for a month to soften and cure it. The inside is then hollowed out and the shell soaked in a vat of mustard oil and garlic pods and heated over a fire for an hour.  The shell is allowed to remain in the oil till it takes on a blackish hue.  Animal hide, traditionally provided by leather working communities like the Ruidas, is then stretched across both ends and the two surfaces are then laced to each other across the wooden body. The playing surface has the thicker membrane, while the other skin acts as a resonator. It usually takes four months or so to make a dhak. Sometimes, members of the Ruidas community, who are known for their instrument making skills, make the dhak themselves.   

In the old days, the Dhak was sometimes referred to as Donka. The larger version of Dhak is called Jaidhak or Joidonka. It has been found that the Jaidhak is sometimes made of iron plate as well. More often than not, when the Dhak is played, especially during  ritualistic ceremonies, the Dhol (a variation of the Dhak) and the Kansi (a brass plate struck by a wooden stick) are also used as accompanying instruments. The Dhak and the Dhol were traditionally used as the war drums and in the days of yore, were also employed in wedding processions.  

The traditional drummers who play the Dhaks are known as Dhakis. They are generally landless farmers who play the dhak in their spare time. However many who do not belong to traditional Dhaki families learn the art from a guru. The beats of the Dhak are complex, the nuances of which have been handed down the generations. But the older, slower, complex rhythms which require a high degree of skill are being sacrificed for new faster beats. With lack of support and practice, these rhythms have all but disappeared.  

The stimulating and energizing beat of the Dhak sets the rhythm and heightens the fervor not only during puja-centric ceremonies in West Bengal but also when it is used as an accompaniment for many of the folk performances of this land, such as Gajon and Gomira. The drummers naturally eagerly wait for the festive season each year, when they travel to the cities. But their artistry is rarely given its due credit as their remuneration is poor. The Dhakis have also been losing out to technology, with pre recorded Dhak sounds being preferred over the real thing in many instances. As a result, many Dhaki families have given up their tradition. 

In the last few years, a new trend has started - that of women dhakis. Spearheaded by master dhaki, Gokul Chandra Das, who personally trained women from his village, a demand for women dhakis is gradually developing. Of recent vintage too is a system started by the West Bengal government of paying out a monthly stipend to registered folk artists and also providing instruments to needy artists. It is possible the dhakis may also benefit.

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